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Kindergarten Need Not Be A Pressure Cooker

USA Today

September 10, 2009

By Lisa Guernsey

A few years ago, Newsweek called kindergarten "the new first grade." This month, as I watch my 5-year-old settle into her classroom, it's clear the trend hasn't abated. In May, she was kneading Play-Doh in preschool. Now she has an assigned seat and "guided reading" lessons.

It's a jarring introduction to school — a recent report from the national Governors' Forum Series described it as a "plunge" — that could be eased dramatically if we could take some real, and maybe even counterintuitive, steps toward building a better early education system.

Academic kindergartens arrived in the wake of new science showing that all children, not just the "geniuses" or the most advantaged, can learn earlier than once thought. Research has shown that children do better in school if they gain literacy skills at a young age. The testing requirements of No Child Left Behind have turned up the pressure.

But teachers are also starting to feel pressure against this academic bent, as middle-class parents demand reassurances that kindergarten will still include playtime. A provocative report titled "Crisis in the Kindergarten" emerged this spring from the Alliance for Childhood, a non-profit group advocating "the recovery of creative play." On parenting blogs, mothers ponder whether to avoid public schools or "redshirt" their 5-year-olds, holding them back for a year.

The shame is that the options have turned into "either-or," as if play and education are diametrically opposed. We have to find ways to relieve the pressure on kindergarten without reaching back futilely to the early 20th century, when expectations were lower and the urban and rural poor were virtually ignored. Here are some modern-day ideas:

Allow playtime and learning to be one and the same. Kindergarten teachers are not provided with enough training — let alone buy-in from administrators — to blend the two successfully. For example, an environment that encourages "pretend play" in a grocery store can promote math skills. "If children are putting weights on a balance, they are doing algebra," says Deborah Stipek, dean of Stanford University's education school. "Two apples equals one grapefruit."

Make preschool affordable for working families. Children arriving without preschool require extra attention that can take time from play-based activities. Some have never had story time or have never tried to write their name. Head Start helps, but it is for the very poor. Meanwhile, private preschools and child care centers with pre-kindergarten programs cost up to tens of thousands a year.

Provide full-day kindergarten. Only 10 states require it, and many actually make it difficult for districts to offer full-day kindergarten. Critics worry that more hours in school means more time on mind-numbing worksheets. But some teachers report that a 9 a.m.-noon school day is too crunched to offer much time for blocks, dolls or puzzles, let alone recess.

Build a bridge between preschool and kindergarten. Children who attended preschool need activities that build on what they've learned. But kindergarten teachers don't know what their students know. They have no opportunity to talk to Head Start or preschool teachers. Instead, they spend the first few weeks assessing where children stand. It's a surefire way to kill motivation in children revved up by a good preschool experience, and it separates kindergarten and preschool teachers who could learn so much from each other.

The first day of kindergarten shouldn't feel like plunging into a pressure cooker. These steps would help turn kindergarten classrooms into the blooming gardens of learning they're supposed to be.

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